It was around my early teens that I noticed I was getting attention from men. Not just boys in my year at secondary school but in older years, and even adult males who didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps mind that I was in my school uniform as they’d chat me up in town after school, or on the beach on weekends where I’d hang out with my friends.
Far from being bothered, this was the self-esteem boost I’d needed after recently moving to the area and having to adjust and make new friends.
And what teenage girl doesn’t want to be made to feel attractive?
I learned as I grew up that leaning in at a bar (necessary due to my 5’3 stature) would get instant service, a smile could get the best table in a restaurant, free entry to a club, backstage entrance to a gig. I could get the attention of the most attractive man at a party, from models to celebrities. Yes, I exploited it and had fun. Heck, I was 18, and I was going to make the most of the party years. Some minor modelling work came along at various points over the years (I’m too short to take it seriously), so I even made money from how I looked.
It’s funny how the world has become so image obsessed. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t part of that, but there’s a fine line between vanity and insecurity, and while I didn’t realise it at the time, my insecurities were brewing into a host of mental health problems that were to surface later on.
When asked if I’d rather be slim and pretty, or fat and ugly, the answer isn’t simple. The question itself is flawed. I’d rather be happy. If being attractive makes you happy then sure, take that. Unfortunately if it was that easy cosmetic surgery would be the answer. It’s never that easy, and while many people think I’m lucky, or have life easy, or am #blessed with wonderful genes, I’d like to shed light on a life that so many are craving.
There are two sides to every coin, including this one.
1. You will be seen first and foremost for your appearance
It’s not just blondes who are stereotyped. People think it’s not possible to have brains and looks. Okay, I may have fluttered my eyelashes to get out of a speeding fine once, but I’m not proud of it, and it says as much about the shallow policeman who let me go. Perhaps the reaction was encouraged by the fact I was wearing my beauty therapist uniform, another career choice put into the ‘all looks and no brains’ category.
Looking good becomes your identity. I’ve done a bit of modelling so it’s even on my CV. But that means people expect you to look good. Not in the way that it’s on their mind but if I turn up somewhere looking tired, with greasy hair, no make-up and premenstrual spots, it doesn’t go unnoticed. For many years I couldn’t let this go and would make the effort to live up to these expectations, which I think in hindsight were my own as well as others’. Thankfully age and confidence have both risen simultaneously, and I happily don’t give a damn if people start wondering if I actually own a shower. I’m pleased I’ve made this turn. Self-esteem built on looks is doomed. Even the most beautiful woman in the world will lose her looks eventually.
2. I’m young and inexperienced (except I’m not)
I remember when I was handed a leaflet in the street about a support group for young (aka teenage) mothers, as I waddled along 8 months pregnant with my first child. I had to hold my tongue not to go into a hormonal rage and wave the ring on my finger in the well-meaning social worker’s face. This isn’t to dismiss teenage or unmarried mothers at all – in fact my own sister is a fantastic young mum, but some people do have preconceived ideas about unplanned teen pregnancies, and I guess it said something about my own insecurities that it bothered me others may also have these judgemental ideas about me.
Now that Aurora is eight, nothing has changed. I ‘must have been a teen mum’ given I’m not old enough to have an eight year old. If I had been, it wouldn’t make a difference to what kind of mother I had become, but why is it that people feel it’s appropriate to make a point of it? You wouldn’t say to an older looking mother, ‘oh, they must have been an IVF baby, you’re too old to be a Mum’. And yes, it is the same thing
3. I have to work hard to be taken seriously
When people presume you are young and dumb, try walking into a business meeting and being taken seriously as a mature and level-headed business woman. I can hold my own very well on the phone but the looks on the bank manager or company owner or potential joint venture’s face doesn’t evade me; ‘she’s not a business woman, she’s just a girl’. It takes a while before they realise what comes out of my mouth isn’t all fluff, after all.
4. I’ve never had male friends
I’m actually quite a tomboy at heart, and with three brothers I understand the other kind quite well. But somewhere along the line a great budding friendship has always turned awkward when they try and make a move, or admit they’d like to be ‘more than friends’. Was it my fault? Was my friendliness giving the wrong impression? I don’t know. I thought being friendly was a good thing. I didn’t know it could so easily be misinterpreted.
I was at a marketing event recently and a lovely guy kept coming over to chat. About halfway through the second day he asked if I was single and I showed him my left hand and said actually I had two children too! He walked off and never spoke to me again. Shame, he was really sweet.
5. I have to be so careful of what my girls pick up
Any mum of girls knows it’s pretty much built into them from an early age, this instinct of wanting to look ‘pretty’ to attract a mate (though that last part thankfully hasn’t clicked in our house yet!). Whether it’s insisting on wearing a princess dress to the supermarket or plastering pink glitter on their eyelids, being pretty matters.
They are pretty girls, but that’s not what I want them to be valued for, and even more what they value themselves for. When friends and relatives call them pretty it angers me, and maybe this is an overreaction, but I wish they were called kind, or thoughtful, or generous, or someone said that they worked really hard at their painting. I don’t call my girls pretty. We must look presentable to go to a party, yes, and dresses and bows and shiny shoes are part of that for my girls (I never pushed this stereotype on them, I battle every winter for them to wear jeans outside when it’s cold; pink dresses always win). But that’s because self-pride is important. Making an effort for others is important. It’s a sign of respect to yourself and to your hosts. You don’t have to be conventionally ‘pretty’ to do that.
6. Male attention can turn bad
While a wolf whistle is nice on occasion, I noticed something as I was growing up that was different about the way these men behaved towards me compared to my friends. I was curvy as a teen – I had boobs worthy of page 3 (breastfeeding sadly said goodbye to those), and somehow wearing a fitted top (as you do, in your late teens) meant men felt they had license to pass all boundaries. It’s one thing getting a ‘hey chick’ across the street, quite another to be cornered, pushed up against a wall, boobs grabbed, and having to resort to kneeing them between the legs to escape.
7. Looks don’t make you happy
While most people think they know this, to really see how true this is you only need to look at my mental health history. I have recently been diagnosed with cyclothymia (a form of bipolar), was hospitalised three times with anorexia, complete with drug-resistant depression and organs that were failing. I’ve overdosed on legal drugs, self-harmed, and have to put my mental health first just to stay functioning on a daily basis. As a personal trainer who’s in okay shape, I frequently hear ‘it’s okay for you and your lack of wobbly bits’. No, it’s not ok for me. I wish it was, but it’s not. Exercise is my therapy, not beauty treatment.
Do I resent looking a certain way?
Absolutely not, I resent and regret nothing in life; I’ve always seen both as a little pointless. And I don’t blame or resent anyone who’s judged me on my looks, from the builder who pinned me up against a wall to the businessman who looked down at me to the dance teacher who casually stamped on my dreams saying I probably wasn’t good enough to get tonnes of work, but why not try modelling? Oddly enough, that was not why I’d spent nine hours a week training for the last six years. This was the same dance school where I’d been praised for being the only one who’d not gained weight over Christmas; I’d been vomiting and taking laxatives.
I hear some women say their looks have alienated them from making friends with other women who feel threatened and jealous. Thankfully that’s never been the case for me and I have some wonderful female friends, maybe even because I don’t want to rely on looks to get things and attract people; I’ll always be as good a person as I can be first and foremost.
In Dr Nancy Etcoff’s “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty”, she believes that appreciating beauty is not learned, but rather it is a biological adaptation. Research on infants’ perception shows that children as young as three months are staring at attractive faces longer than at unattractive ones. Uneven skin and lacklustre hair are a sign of sickness, which to the ancient instinctive human in us means less fertile, which means less attractive. Humans were designed to survive.
Some things just are as they are. There are plus sides, there are downsides, but isn’t that the same with everything in life? At nearly 34 and having found my first two grey hairs already, I’m finally feeling comfortable with who I am as a person, and if I lose my looks completely, that’s okay with me.
Pollyanna Hale is an award winning Weight Loss Coach, online Personal Trainer and Nutritionist, helping Mums across the UK to lose weight, have more energy and increase body confidence without going to the gym or spending hours in the kitchen. Here’s her website and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube
Image credit: phynix photography